As mentioned in the “Victoria Cross Recipients – Keeping it in the Family” article previously, the Sidney family was one of the premier courtiers in the Tudor dynasty. The Victoria Cross recipients in the family came by their bravery honestly as they were descended from a long line of courageous men and women.
William Sidney was the eldest son of Nicholas Sidney and Anne Brandon. Anne’s father, Sir William Brandon, was Henry VII’s standard bearer at the Battle of Bosworth. On Richard III’s final charge, he attacked Brandon mercilessly while he defended the Tudor standard and was killed. The ballad The Battle of Bosworth describes it as thus:
amongst all other Knights, remember
which were hardy, & therto wight;
Sir william Brandon was one of those,
King Heneryes Standard he kept on height,
& vanted itt with manhood & might
vntill with dints hee was dr(i)uen downe,
& dyed like an ancyent Knight,
with HENERY of England that ware the crowne.
William Brandon’s son, Charles Brandon, was favored by Henry VII, and Charles went on to become the boon companion of Henry VIII and marry his sister, however, that is a story for another time. Since William Sidney was Charles Brandon’s cousin, he was well connected at the Tudor courts. In fact, it was William that Henry VIII trusted to break the awkward news that his sister Mary, the widowed Queen of France, had married Charles Brandon in unseemly haste.
William went on to marry Anne Parkenham and have four daughters and a son, Henry Sidney. Henry was chosen by King Henry VIII as one of fourteen high born boys to be educated in the palace school with Prince Edward, the future Edward VI. Together the boys were taught the fundamentals of a humanist education. This included geography, history as well as many languages, including French, German, Greek and Latin. They were also given lessons in etiquette, fencing, horsemanship, music and other pursuits befitting gentlemen. This education served Henry well, and he was knighted in 1550 and made an excellent match in Lady Mary Dudley. Her father was John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and the Lord Protector of England. Her brother was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who became a great favorite of Elizabeth I.
In 1553, Edward VI succumbed to his lingering illness and died in Henry Sidney’s arms. His father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, had convinced the weakened Edward to change the succession outlined in Henry VIII’s will and pass over his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, and install Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Lady Jane’s ascension would keep Catholic Mary from undoing the work of Edward VI and the other protestant reformers. Also, Lady Jane was conveniently married to one of the Duke’s sons, which left the Duke free to remain the power behind the throne. Henry Sidney signed this will as a witness, and his wife was the one who broke the news of Edward’s death to Lady Jane. However, Queen Jane only reigned for nine days, and Mary Tudor took the throne and sent John Dudley, his son Guilford and Jane herself to the headsman.
Henry Sidney was able to sidestep what could have been a disastrous association with the once powerful Dudleys. Although Henry had witnessed Edward’s will changing the succession, he was one of the first to ask for Mary’s pardon. He quickly conformed to Catholicism and even named his firstborn son in honor of the Queen’s Spanish consort, Philip. This allowed him to flourish until Elizabeth I came to power. His wife, Mary, quickly became one of Elizabeth’s favorite Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, and frequently was Elizabeth’s mouthpiece to diplomats. When Elizabeth contracted smallpox in 1562, Mary nursed her until she came down with the deadly disease herself. Mary lived, but was disfigured as the diseased scarred her face. The Sidney’s fortunes rose under Elizabeth I as Henry became Lord Deputy of Ireland and other honors, however, the couple did complain about about the lack of financial rewards under the notoriously frugal Elizabeth. Despite their complaints, their son Philip followed them into the Queen’s service.
Philip Sidney was a noted courtier and poet at the court of Elizabeth I. He was well educated with notable family connections and rose quickly at court. He was considered by many to be the “flower of chivalry”. His most notable works of poetry were Astrophel and Stella, thought to be written for Penelope Devereux, and the Defense of Poesy. He completed a draft of The Arcadia and dedicated it to his younger sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who was one of the first women in England to achieve literary acclaim. He expanded this draft, but was unable to finish it before his death. His sister Mary finished this second edition and had it published. It is referred to as The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.
An ardent protestant, he fit in with many of the reformers at court and happily offered his services against England’s Catholic foes. He attempted to sneak onto Francis Drake’s expedition to Cadiz, but was foiled. Instead he was appointed the Governor of Flushing in the Netherlands. This was probably due to the influence of his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, but it suited Philip well to be fighting for the Protestant cause against the Spanish. He sustained an injury at the battle of Zutphen, which developed gangrene and he died after 26 days. Famously, he gave his share of water to a dying man saying “Your need is greater than mine.” He is also said to have composed a ballad to be sung at his deathbed. When his funeral wound through the streets of London, spectators are said to have cried, “Farewell, the worthiest knight that lived.”